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Oscars 2000 Friday, 17 March, 2000, 10:12 GMT
Topsy sparks G&S revival
Topsy-Turvy centres on the tensions surrounding the Mikado
By BBC News Online's Rebecca Thomas

More than a century after Gilbert and Sullivan were at their peak, the maestros of the light opera have hit the big time again.

In their heyday, William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan enjoyed huge success with works such as HMS Pinafore, the Pirates of Penzance and the Mikado.

Over the last few decades, however, the intellectual establishment has tended to dismiss them as outdated buffoons and their works the preserve of provincial amateurs.
Mike Leigh
Mike Leigh is a Gilbert and Sullivan devotee
Yet now a renewed and widespread enthusiasm seems to be taking grip with the general approval greeting Topsy-Turvy from British movie director Mike Leigh.

Leigh's acclaimed musical film - taking a behind the scenes look at the Mikado and the growing tension between the British writer-composer team - has won two Oscars.

And as early as January, it was sweeping the board at both the New York Film Critics and National Society of Film Critics awards.


But it is not just on screen that Gilbert and Sullivan are once more causing a stir.
The G&S operas
Thespis - 1871
Trial By Jury -1875
Sorcerer - 1877
HMS Pinafore - 1878
Pirates of Penzance - 1879
Patience - 1881
Iolanthe - 1882
Princess Ida - 1884
Mikado - 1885
Ruddigore - 1887
Yeomen Of The Guard - 1888
Gondoliers - 1889
Utopia Limited - 1893
Grand Duke - 1896
In London, the G&S opera company D'Oyly Carte has made a triumphant return to its spiritual home at the Savoy Theatre for the first time in 11 years with a production of HMS Pinafore.

Mike Leigh was in the audience for the first night and was reportedly highly impressed. Much to many people's surprise, the director of gritty, black comedies such as Secrets & Lies and Naked has long been a fan of the godfathers of Victorian middle-class entertainment.

He insists that beneath the song and dance, the work and lives of Gilbert and Sullivan bear many of the hallmarks of his usual fare: strained relationships, social criticism and disappointed lives.

Leigh's hallmark

He adds that these human tensions were fundamental to the making of Topsy-Turvy: "If you scrape away the tiniest top surface, you'll find a regular Mike Leigh film in there."
Allan Corduner as Sullivan
Allan Corduner plays musical talent Sullivan
Topsy-Turvy chronicles a key and painful period in the volatile relationship between Gilbert and Sullivan in the months after the failure of Princess Ida.

Sullivan, played by Allan Corduner, is reluctant to begin another project and the uncompromising Gilbert, played by Jim Broadbent, becomes increasingly frustrated with his hesitation.

A chance visit to an exhibition sparks the idea for The Mikado and the story follows the production of the show up until its opening. Topsy-Turvy also gives a key insight into the D'Oyly Carte and the showmen and women who brought the G&S creations to life.

Both the company, and its Savoy Theatre, were set up by Gilbert and Sullivan's impresario patron Richard D'Oyly Carte specifically for the performance of their work. Problems with funding - and fires - have kept the two apart until now.

Screen to stage

Since February, however, the box office has been doing a roaring trade. Joe Hollings, keeper of the D'Oyly Carte archive, is sure the success of Topsy-Turvy has played a significant part.
HMS Pinafore
HMS Pinafore: Doing good business at the Savoy
"We can't tell if all the people coming to see HMS Pinafore have seen the film but that kind of publicity cannot fail to generate interest," he says. "The fact that we are back at the Savoy is undoubtedly an added incentive."

But he concludes: "What makes the work of Gilbert and Sullivan - for all ages - is the combination of the wit and irony of Gilbert's words and situations with the brilliance of Sullivan's music."

HMS Pinafore is a nautical caper centred around the mutual love of a common sailor for his captain's daughter.

And like most Gilbert and Sullivan operas, its perennial popularity lies largely in its sharp satire on rank and station in English life - no less relevant in the 21st century than when it was written and naturally compelling to a contemporary satirist like Leigh.

Living interest

One person who has no problem seeing the similarities between Leigh and Gilbert and Sullivan is actor Sam Kelly.
Sam Kidd
Sam Kelly has had his interest in G&S rekindled
He took the starring role of Sir Joseph Porter in HMS Pinafore on the strength of the great time he had playing company manager Richard Barker in Topsy-Turvy.

"Gilbert and Sullivan had slipped out of my mind until I did Topsy-Turvy and then suddenly it all came back to me and I have now grown to like them enormously," Kelly explains.

"The appeal is in Gilbert's story which is, in this case, about things we still talk about now: class cronyism - and it's funny.

"The way it looks and the choreography are wonderful and as you hear the music you think 'That's where that comes from' as you do with the Mikado."

HMS Pinafore runs until April after which D'Oyly Carte is going on tour. The company is particularly looking forward to going to the US where Gilbert and Sullivan have maintained a huge following since they first went there at the end of the 19th Century.
Jim Broadbent
Jim Broadbent plays the intemperate wit Gilbert in Topsy-Turvy
Whether or not the same level of interest can be kept up in the UK will, predicts Sam Kelly, depend much on the level of financial support for future Gilbert and Sullivan productions.

"It doesn't really matter if D'Oyly Carte stays at the Savoy because there is definitely an audience for Gilbert and Sullivan and it's still as relevant as ever it was.

"But it would have to be done really well to compete with Lloyd Webber and such like down the road - that's what the coach loads like but that is also very expensive to put on."

See also:

10 Jan 00 | Entertainment
12 Sep 99 | Entertainment
17 Dec 99 | Entertainment
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